The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson

I enjoyed Sally Magnusson’s first book, The Sealwoman’s Gift (with one or two reservations), so I had been looking forward to reading her next one, The Ninth Child, which sounded very different but equally interesting. However, although some aspects of it certainly are fascinating, there are other parts that I struggled with and on the whole I think I preferred The Sealwoman’s Gift.

The Ninth Child is set in Scotland in the 19th century and tells the story of the construction of the Loch Katrine Waterworks, an engineering scheme designed to provide clean water to the people of Glasgow. The story is told from the perspectives of several characters associated with the scheme, the main one being doctor’s wife Isabel Aird. Having suffered several miscarriages during her six years of marriage, Isabel is depressed and unhappy, a state of mind which is not improved when her husband, Alexander, informs her that they will be moving to the Trossachs where he will be involved in the building of the new waterworks.

As a doctor, Alexander believes that the recent outbreaks of cholera in Glasgow are caused by the contaminated water supply, so he is looking forward to doing something that can really make a difference to people’s lives. Isabel accompanies him, reluctantly at first, but as she settles into her new home she finds comfort in walking in the countryside by the loch, especially when she begins to believe she is receiving messages from her lost children. It is during one of these walks that she meets the Reverend Robert Kirke, a man said to have been taken by the fairies two hundred years earlier. Are the stories about Robert true – and if so, why has he returned to the land of the living and what is his interest in Isabel?

The novel is written from the perspectives of several different characters: Isabel herself; Robert Kirke; Kirsty, the wife of one of the men working at Loch Katrine; and, surprisingly, Prince Albert, who is staying at Balmoral with Queen Victoria and preparing to appear at the official opening of the new waterworks. Unfortunately, the transitions from one character’s narrative to another are not very smooth and sometimes I couldn’t immediately tell who was narrating (something which wasn’t helped by the poor formatting of the NetGalley copy I was reading and will presumably have been improved in the finished version). The Victoria and Albert storyline felt unnecessary and out of place to me, but the others all added something different and complemented each other well, with Robert and Kirsty’s stories steeped in Scottish folklore and “the hills and the hollows and the brown peat moors and the ancient mounds of the Sìthichean – that’s fairies to you.”

Robert Kirke was a real person – an Episcopalian minister who lived from 1644 to 1692 and was the author of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, which was later published by Sir Walter Scott. Legends arose after Kirke’s death saying that he had been spirited away to fairyland after revealing their secrets and this is the basis of the story Sally Magnusson creates for him in The Ninth Child. I loved this aspect of the novel, which reminded me in some ways of James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, but I couldn’t help feeling that this magical, fantastical tale didn’t really belong in the same book as the much more realistic and factual story of the Loch Katrine Waterworks. Lots of fascinating ideas found their way into the pages of The Ninth Child, but in the end I felt that it didn’t quite work either as fantasy or historical fiction.

Thanks to John Murray Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Good People by Hannah Kent

the-good-people The Good People is the second novel from Australian author Hannah Kent, following her 2013 debut Burial Rites. I liked Burial Rites – the story of a woman found guilty of murder in 19th century Iceland – but I didn’t love it the way so many other readers did and I was curious to see what I would think of this new one. Now that I’ve read it, I can say that this is definitely my favourite of the two.

The Good People is set in rural Ireland in the 1820s. Nóra Leahy is going through a difficult time, having lost both her daughter and her husband in the space of a year. She has been left to take care of her four-year-old grandson, Micheál, who should be a blessing to her – but to Nóra he is nothing but a worry. She remembers seeing him as a healthy, happy baby, yet the little boy her son-in-law has brought to live with her is entirely different: he is thin and sickly, has lost the use of his legs, can’t understand what is being said to him and communicates through uncontrollable screaming. Nóra knows something is badly wrong with him and, unable to cope on her own, she hires a girl, Mary Clifford, to help her look after him.

Mary is shocked by Micheál’s condition, but does her best for him with the limited knowledge she has, aware that Nóra is starting to view the child with fear and revulsion. In this isolated community, neither the village priest nor the doctor are able to offer any useful advice or explanations, so Nóra seeks the help of the healer and wise woman Nance Roche. Nance knows all about the world of the fairies, or the Good People, as she calls them, and tells Nóra that Micheál is not her grandson at all, but a changeling. Together, Nóra, Nance and Mary set about trying to drive the fairy out of the child’s body in the hope that the real Micheál will be restored.

As you can imagine, The Good People is not exactly the happiest or most uplifting of books – but then, not everything that happens in life is happy or uplifting either, and, like Burial Rites, this novel is based on a true event from history. Poor Micheál’s story is a tragic one, all the more so because of the treatment he receives from the very people he should be able to rely on for love and affection. The worst of it is, these people really seem to believe in fairies and convince themselves that Micheál really is a changeling, because then there is a chance that he can be cured. Through a mixture of ignorance and superstition, they think they are doing the right thing.

Hannah Kent writes beautifully and from the very first page the reader is pulled into a bygone world, a remote community in which the people, despite living in a Christian society, are still holding on to their ancient beliefs and traditions. This is not a fantasy novel or a fairy tale, yet the unseen fairies are a very strong presence throughout the story: we are told that the Good People live in their ringfort, Piper’s Grave, in a lonely part of the valley where lights dance around the ghostly whitethorn tree, and that their powers are strongest at the place where three rivers meet. Everyone seems to know of at least one person who has been ‘swept’ away by the fairies and they just accept these things as part of their everyday lives.

Because of the overwhelming sadness of the story and the suffering of little Micheál, I know this isn’t a book that will appeal to everyone, but I was very impressed by it. I loved it for the quality of the writing, the intensity of the atmosphere and the insights into life in a less enlightened time and place.

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Laura Silver Bell by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (Irish Short Story Week)

This week (14-20 March) Mel U of The Reading Life is hosting an Irish Short Story Week. If you’d like to participate all you need to do is read at least one short story by an Irish author. There are plenty of these available to read for free online, including stories by classic authors such as Oscar Wilde, James Joyce and Bram Stoker.

I thought this would be a good opportunity to try a short story by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Le Fanu is probably most famous for his vampire novella, Carmilla, and gothic novel Uncle Silas, but has also written a lot of shorter fiction. As I’m not familiar with his short stories at all, I chose one at random from The Literature Network.

Laura Silver Bell is a simple but effective story. It is set in the north of England, in an isolated rural area. Laura Lew, known as Laura Silver Bell, has been raised as a farmer’s daughter after the death of her mother.

So Farmer Lew called the little girl Laura; and her sobriquet of “Silver Bell” was derived from a tiny silver bell, once gilt, which was found among her poor mother’s little treasures after her death, and which the child wore on a ribbon round her neck.

When Laura falls in love with a tall man dressed in black whom she meets while walking home one night, she receives a warning from Mother Carke, a former sage femme (midwife) who is believed to be a witch. Mother Carke suspects that the man is a fairy and she advises Laura to stay away from him. But will Laura take her advice or will she be tempted to go with the fairy – and what will happen to her if she does?

“Say yer prayers, lass; I can’t help ye,” says the old woman darkly. “If ye gaa wi’ the people, ye’ll never come back. Ye munna talk wi’ them, nor eat wi’ them, nor drink wi’ them, nor tak a pin’s-worth by way o’ gift fra them – mark weel what I say – or ye’re lost!”

Although this is not a horror story exactly, it does have quite an eerie atmosphere, due to the lonely setting and the grounding in traditional folklore – there are frequent references to fairies, witchcraft and black magic (fairies, in this sense, are not the pretty winged creatures that are often depicted in modern culture, but something more sinister). It seems that Le Fanu had a particular interest in the legends of humans being stolen away by fairies – after reading this story I read another one by the same author called The Child that Went with the Fairies which, as the title suggests, is on the same theme as Laura Silver Bell.

Have you read this story or anything else by Le Fanu? Which of his stories or novels would you recommend I read next?

Thoughts on A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

A few months ago I mentioned that I would like to revisit a few of Shakespeare’s plays, but for one reason or another I haven’t had time to do that until now. I thought this would be an appropriate time of year (unless you live in the southern hemisphere, of course) to look at A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As I’m not a Shakespearean scholar and haven’t actually tried to write about one of his plays since I was at school, this is not going to be an in-depth analysis. As the title of this post suggests, I am just going to give some of my thoughts on rereading the play.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is widely performed on stage, making it one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. The play is thought to have been written around 1594-1596 and is classed as a comedy.

There are three separate storylines woven into the plot. The first involves the upcoming wedding of Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. A group of craftsmen (known as ‘mechanicals’) are rehearsing the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, a play they are planning to perform at the wedding. In the second thread we meet Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the fairies. Titania has a new page boy and Oberon is jealous. He and his servant, the mischievous fairy Puck, come up with a plot to distract Titania while Oberon takes the boy away from her. The third storyline follows Hermia (who is in love with Lysander), Helena (who is in love with Demetrius), and Demetrius and Lysander (who are both in love with Hermia). Confusing? Yes – and it gets even more complicated when the four of them get mixed up in Puck and Oberon’s scheming!

In Act I Scene 1, Lysander tells us “the course of true love never did run smooth” – and the central theme of the play is love and its difficulties. Here is one of my favourite quotes on the subject of love:

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;
And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind:
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgement taste;
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste:
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.

The play begins and ends in Athens but the majority of the play is set in the nearby woods, a place free from Athenian law. With some of Shakespeare’s plays I find it difficult to get a real sense of the time and place, but with this one I have no problem picturing the characters running through the moonlit woods on a warm midsummer’s night while the fairies dance around them weaving their magic. The dreamlike mood is enhanced by the way much of the action takes place while various characters are sleeping. Here Oberon describes the bank where Titania sleeps:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight;

As in several of Shakespeare’s plays there’s also a theme of doubling and symmetry with Theseus and Hippolyta mirroring Oberon and Titania, and the two men Lysander and Demetrius being balanced by the two women Hermia and Helena. The conflict is caused by the fact that although Hermia and Lysander are in love, Demetrius also loves Hermia, leaving Helena on her own. Only when the balance is restored by Demetrius falling in love with Helena can the story come to its conclusion.

If you’d like to read the play online you can do so here. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a few words from Puck…

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.

*The picture at the top of this post shows “The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania” by Sir Joseph Noel Paton, c. 1849 (in the public domain)